The WorkingCulture Blog.  A discussion of workplace psychology, communication, and international teams. Authored by Kevin Ready.

Entries in international projects (6)


Case Study: Communication Protocols Are Important


A multinational team in the United States: When a semiconductor company found a problem on one of their projects, a mid-level engineer immediately sent an email message to their Japanese client company (who was paying for the work), telling them of the issue. The response from the Japanese company was swift and indignant. They were very upset, and American executives spent a great deal of time trying to repair the damage.

Analysis: The American engineer who sent the mail was concerned about the issue and thought that it was good diligence to immediately inform the client of the problem. From the Japanese side, they were really upset about being informed 1) by email, and 2) by a mid-level engineer.

For the Japanese company, they expected at the very least a phone call from a senior executive in the case of such significant news. This problem could have been avoided if cultural training had been conducted, and clear standards of communication had been set. After this incident, the company instituted a ‘no contact’ policy between non-executive engineers and the Japanese client.



Case Study 4: Being Marginalized


A multinational team in the United States: Many of the foreign team members will not substantially participate in meetings, hesitant to speak up. On occasion, some of the foreign team will even occasionally fall asleep in the meeting room. The effect of this was a growing sense that the foreign team members were marginalized as a group, and not fully able to contribute to the project.

Analysis: One cause of this is probably that the verbal discourse in the meeting was happening too fast. In addition, the meetings would often last too long. It can be taxing to actively listen to a foreign language for a long time, and it may be unreasonable to expect team members to absorb so much information in such a chaotic format. To compensate for this, the team distributed meeting minutes after each meeting that detailed all action items and conclusions. Also, relevant documents were stored in a central database, so foreign participants who could not follow the conversation likely planned to pick up the details after returning to their desks. Another aspect of this was that some of the foreign participants felt that the meeting contents were not relevant to their tasks—they were often invited to the meetings for reasons that they did not understand.


Case Study 3: The Bottleneck


An American company outsourced a team to China: After training 15 Chinese workers how to do their tasks, the American team had most of its members transferred to other groups or fired, leaving only 3 original members to continue handling the American side of the work. The remaining 3 members were then required to have daily 10:00 PM phone conferences with the Chinese team.

During the phone conferences, there was frequent uncomfortable silence. On the Chinese side, there was only 1 team member who had enough confidence, or English skill to try to talk to the Americans. The Americans complained that they could only barely understand the one engineer who would speak, and did not have confidence that he was relaying appropriately complete information to the rest of his team. The Americans would talk for 5 minutes, and then the one Chinese engineer would speak in Chinese for 10 – 15 seconds to the rest of his team. The result of this communication bottleneck, (and other technical issues) was that the 3 American team members had to pick up most of the work themselves, and got minimal work output from the Chinese team.

Analysis: This communication problem needed more English speakers on the Chinese side, or a fluent Chinese speaker on the American side. Given the small size of the team, however, this kind of HR resource was out-of-budget. Ultimately, executive management is responsible for providing the resources necessary for the team to be successful.



Case Study 2: Communication

When an American company opened an office in India: Business operations needed to adjust to include frequent phone-based conference calls. The American team quickly began to complain about the language skills of the Indians, claiming that they were too difficult to understand over the phone. Tensions mounted over time, and American team members began to resist working with the Indians, and frequently complained. Management clearly stated that the Indian team was critical to new operations, but resistance did not disappear entirely. Ultimately, management fired the most resistant Americans in order to show that the culture needed to adapt to a new international model, and strive to work with their Indian colleagues.

Analysis: Executive management made a clear statement when it fired the most resistant employees. This is a calculated move to support the foreign team, and presumably to push a culture of tolerance.


Case Study: Communication Protocols



A multinational team in the United States: On this team, a Japanese engineer was getting increasingly frustrated with his American manager. He sent repeated formal emails to the manager requesting action, but did not get any ‘appropriate’ response. After weeks of such frustration, he became so upset that he began questioning the personal qualities and worthiness of the American manager.

Analysis: What had happened was that the Japanese engineer was using a formal writing style (in English) in communicating with the American manager. He formatted his rather long messages with a ‘hello, how are you doing’ introduction, and then a general purpose middle section, and only at the very end of the letter did he make his actual request for action. This is very polite in Japanese terms, but clearly misunderstood by the American manager.

The American manager had the mindset that any email coming in would have the most important information at the top of the text, if not in the subject line. When the long emails would arrive from the Japanese, he scanned top-down and not seeing any call to action, often would not respond. When he did respond, his messages were terse (consistent with his company’s style), and did not address the request that was sent by the Japanese engineer.

The Japanese engineer quietly got angrier and angrier, but did not openly address the issue with the American manager. When the American manager finally found out (through a third party intervention), he was completely surprised and apologetic.

In this case an awareness of cultural norms by both parties could have helped. No training was given to the team, so the Americans communicated with the international team members in the same way that they did with their native colleagues. Having agreed-upon communication standards, and a dedicated manager for resolving this kind of issue could have also helped.